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Court Finds Injured Yacht Captain Properly Alleged Jones Act Seaman Status

Jones_Act_Status_LawAn interesting case has been decided as to whether a pleasure yacht captain properly alleged Jones Act seaman status entitling him to seek damages under the federal personal injury statute as well as the maritime law maintenance and cure obligation.  The captain started working aboard the private pleasure yacht in 2010 to perform maintenance and repair jobs on the yacht.  He was eventually hired to take over the position of the yacht’s captain on a part-time basis in additions to his general maintenance and repair duties.  In late 2014, the part-time captain position became full-time.  Under the terms of the employment agreement, he was paid a salary of $3,500 per month and lived aboard the yacht.  As the yacht’s master, he operated the vessel during moves to Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina for boat shows and prepared the yacht for visits by the owners.  On April 25, 2016, while preparing to move the yacht from Hilton Head Island to Charleston, when he fell approximately 7 feet onto the concrete dock and landed on his elbows.  Injuries sustained from the fall required multiple surgeries.  He was terminated two months later.

The captain filed a lawsuit against his employer for failure to pay maintenance and cure and for damages arising out of the negligent failure to provide medical treatment under the Jones Act. The employer moved to dismiss the complaint arguing that the complaint failed to plead facts in support of his status as a seaman under the Jones Act.

Legal Analysis

The Jones Act creates a cause of action for negligence when a seaman is injured in the course of his employment.  The Supreme Court has set forth the following two-part test that governs whether a maritime employee is a seaman: (1) the employee’s duties must “contribute to the function of the vessel,” and (2) the employee must “have a connection to a vessel in navigation . . . that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature.”  The complaint alleges that the plaintiff captained the yacht on moves to Charleston and Savannah, and arranged for vessel repairs and other necessities. The Court found these facts are sufficient to fulfill the first prong of the seaman status test, which encompasses “all who work at sea in the service of a ship.”

The Court also found that the second prong of the test, which requires that the work be substantial in duration and nature was satisfied. To quantify the “substantial duration” prong of the seaman test, the Supreme Court has adopted the general rule that an employee “who spends less than about 30 percent of his time in the service of a vessel in navigation should not qualify as a seaman.”. Here, the Court observed that the captain was employed on a full-time basis to work aboard the yacht beginning in November of 2014 until his termination on June 22, 2016.  At the time of the injury he was living aboard the yacht and working on a full-time basis in cleaning, maintaining, and repairing the vessel thereby spending more than 30 percent of his time “in service” of the yacht.  The Court noted that while some of his duties were on-shore, such as arranging for repairs that he could not complete himself and arranging for insurance, dockage, and crew, he has alleged sufficient facts for the court to find that his duties were not those of a land-based worker with an incidental connection to the vehicle, but rather that he was employed full-time as a captain of the yacht.

Conclusion

Defendants in private yacht cases often attempt to argue that their employees are not seamen within the meaning of the Jones Act.  If you are a maritime worker who was injured on the job, it is important that you contact a qualified attorney who has experience handling Jones Act claims.